Chris: Hello, you don’t believe in anything. Are you an atheist?
Agnes: Well no, I am a polytheist. I think atheist sounds so negative.
C.: Well, at least you believe in some sort of god. But isn’t polytheism kind of primitive? We all know that the concept of a single almighty god, who is love, is more advanced.
A.: I don’t know about that. It all seems contradictory to me. My gods usually don’t claim to be almighty, and those who do are laughed at.
C.: But where do your gods come from?
A.: Well, they descend from other gods.
C.: But wouldn’t the original god then be the father of them all, and hence the Supreme Uncaused Being? Some god must have created the Universe.
A.: I don’t know about that. I don’t see the logic. If the presence of something means that something else must be behind it, you get an infinite regress.C.: But what is the cause of the world as a whole? It must come from somewhere!
A.: Causes are a way to understand what’s going on in the world, but you can’t extrapolate to the universe as a whole. That would be like first assert-ing from your limited experience that all potable water comes from taps, and then concluding that there must be a giant tap in the sky that produces rain.
C.: Do you believe you are going to meet your gods when you die?
A.: No, I’m meeting my gods regularly now. I don’t think there will be much of a me after I die.
C.: But how can a person with your religion have any morality if there is no reward or punishment? Do you believe that your gods enforce moral laws?
A.: My religion has law enforcement. It’s not perfect, but we should pray fervently to our gods to do the right thing and not let people get away with crimes. Incidentally, if reward and punishment are to work, they must be administered immediately. It’s very stupid of your god to wait until it’s no use anymore.
C.: But if death is the end of it all, isn’t your life meaningless?
A.: I try to enjoy life as much as I can and please my gods in one way or another.
C.: Are all your gods equal? Do you know them all? Do you pray to them all?A.: Well, equal, no. Most are good and some are bad. But they are all gods, and they all deserve respect on account of their godhood. I usually pray to the few gods that I know, but it is possible to direct your prayers to many at the same time.
C.: How many gods does your religion have?
A.: I don’t know exactly. Currently about six billion.
C.: But . . . that means all people, doesn’t it? My God!
A.: Ha, you are getting the point. But you don’t have to address me so formally.
C.: But people are not gods! They are not almighty at all, and they die!
A.: That’s your idea that gods must be all-this and all-that and immortal to boot. Gods give and deserve love and respect. My gods are fallible and not all that perfect, but they all deserve to be treated like you treat your god. Actually, your god has told you that, too. As a god, I’ll strive for the utmost happiness of humankind, starting with myself, of course. By the way, you are a god, too; that’s why I answer your questions. The difference between you and me is that you don’t know you are a god. You are fumbling around in the dark with a self-imagined pantheon of gods, angels, souls, saints, and devils. All these fictions stand in the way of doing the best you can for yourself and other gods.
C.: What about your immortal soul? Where does that come from?
A.: Tell me more about this soul.
C.: Everybody gets a soul from God at the moment of conception — that is why abortion doctors should be shot, because they violate the sanctity of life. These souls are first in a state of sin, because of what Eve did, but I’m saved now from perdition by the sacrifice of God.
A.: Congratulations with your salvation, but why did your almighty God give you a sinful soul to begin with? And why save you? And what’s wrong with abortion if these fetuses are sinful anyway?
C.: That’s too complicated for me. Theologians have figured that out, I believe. If you support abortion, you support murder. I suppose you want to let all murderers live?
A.: Yes, because the death penalty is a medieval punishment. It might work for the Mafia, but I don’t want to live in that kind of society. I don’t understand why you are in favor of it when your churches are filled with grisly pictures of a gross miscarriage of justice.
C.: That’s easy. In the old times God forgave small sins when you squeezed the blood out of an innocent pigeon against the altar. For big sins you needed something bigger.
A.: Yuck! Can we change the subject?
C.: Do you have a credo?
A.: There is no god but your fellow human.
C.: That’s it? No commandments?
A.: You might elaborate it along these lines: You shall not have any other gods, either natural or supernatural. Always remember that you are a god, too, worthy of love, and inclined to love and revere others. Thank society and especially your parents for making you. Respect the life, marriage, property, and the thoughts of other gods. Not very original, I admit.
C.: But you deny that a Supreme Being exists. Then you are an atheist in my book.
A.: Well, so are you. You deny that Mithras, Ahura-Mazda, Demeter, Osiris, Freya, Buddha, the Celestial Emperor, and Krishna exist, to name a few metaphors for humans. That makes you a 99.999 . . . percent atheist.
C.: You won’t get very far with “There is no god but six billion gods” in Islamic countries.
A.: I’m afraid not. But I must go now. I have an appointment with someone who wants to talk me into believing in reincarnation and karma. And in the afternoon I’m seeing a former psychiatric patient who believes Jesus cured her hysterical paralysis.
C.: I don’t think that the reincarnationist will succeed, but I almost hope he or she does, because your thoughts are too, hmm, original to be healthy.
A.: Bye now. See you.
Jan Willem Nienhuys is a retired mathematician of the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands and co-author of a Dutch encyclopedia of pseudoscience.